SERGISON, Charles (1655-1732), of Cuckfield Park, Suss.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1698 - 1702

Family and Education

bap. ?11 Jan. 1655, s. of ?George Sergison of Stainmore, Westmld.  m. 15 June 1676, Anne Crawley of Hart Street, London, s.p.1

Offices Held

Temporary clerk (victualling accts.) Dec. 1675–Mar. 1677; chief clerk to clerk of acts Mar. 1677–July 1689; sec. to special commn. Mar. 1686–Oct. 1688; asst. clerk of acts July 1689–Feb. 1690; clerk of acts Feb. 1690–May 1719.2

Freeman, Harwich 1707.3


Sergison was ‘a gentleman of great capacity and penetration, exact judgment, close application to business and strict integrity’. He himself boasted that he served his country ‘with an exact integrity, a diligent industry and a painful as well as careful discharge of my trust and duty’. His virtues made him a model civil servant and ensured rapid promotion in the navy office, though they also won him a number of enemies and the burden of work ruined his health. Despite his later prominence, his ancestry is obscure. From references in his will it seems that his family had settled at Stainmore, in Westmorland, and a register for that parish lists Charles, the son of a George Sergison, baptized at about the time the Member is thought to have been born. If this parentage is correct, his father may have moved to London, since in 1678 Charles witnessed the will of George Sergison of All Hallows, by which Westmorland property was left to Charles’s sister. This unusual bequest may be explained by the fact that Charles was already established in a successful career, having entered the naval administration in July 1671, when only 16, as a clerk in one of the dockyards, probably London. In 1675 he was appointed chief clerk to the clerk of acts under John Pepys, brother of Sergison’s later friend Samuel†. The following year he married Anne Crawley, who may have been the daughter of the John Crawley who held a post in the same office from 1680. His own place was sufficiently lucrative for him to make a loan of £1,000 to the government in March 1686. At that time he was also appointed secretary to a special commission set up to expedite a programme of repairs and rebuilding, serving until its dissolution in October 1688, soon after which he and his lifetime friend and colleague, Dennis Lyddell*, presented the new King with an account of the navy. He retained his clerkship until 1689, but, perhaps having caught William’s eye, was advanced to the Navy Board, as clerk of the acts. He later remarked that his last three appointments had been ‘without my seeking . . . and well knowing the fatigue as well as the trust of the office of the clerk of acts, I ventured upon it very unwillingly’. He nevertheless held the position single-handedly for the next 30 years, apart from four years after 1702 when he was joined by Samuel Atkins, formerly clerk to Samuel Pepys. So greatly did Sergison prosper that in 1691 he was able to buy the estate of Cuckfield in Sussex, though in 1712–13 he and Lyddell complained that whereas others had profited from the years of war, ‘we poor slaves drudge on’ at £150 a year, the ‘meanest salary of any commission in the kingdom in proportion to the business and trust thereof’.4

The business of war did indeed place heavy burdens on the commissioners of the navy, particularly on Sergison, together with Lyddell, the comptroller of victualling, who were the most regular attenders of the board’s meetings. Admiral Edward Russell*, on the other hand, lacked the time and inclination to devote himself to administrative duties, leading inevitably to conflict with his over-worked officials. In 1692 Sergison vented some of his frustration in a letter to the Admiralty Board, complaining that the parliamentary commissioners of accounts seemed to imply that, in addition to being responsible for his own department, he must share in collective responsibility for the actions of the Navy Board as a whole. It was, he argued, both impracticable and unfair to make him and Lyddell

responsible for omissions in others, while the gentlemen severally charged with undertaking the same, who alone have the means, as well as the wages for doing them, rest unconsidered, leaving the board generally unprovided of a number sufficient for answering the public service of it.

He protested that,

if I cannot be supported in the execution of my duty with diligence, industry and integrity, I likewise pray I may have leave to withdraw from the business, being as unwilling to undertake more than I am able to answer for, as I am to suffer reflections and indignities for my intentions to the public, having hitherto not had one penny advantage more than my salary for all my services, but mightily injured my health as well as my little fortune, at least with respect to what I might honestly and fairly have accrued if I had still continued in my former station, from which it is well known it was not my desire to remove.

This was the first of many such requests to leave his post, which were always refused as he was considered too valuable an official to lose. It is difficult not to conclude, however, that while his health was certainly undermined, he also needed repeated assurances of royal support to strengthen himself psychologically against the criticism generated within the navy.5

The ‘clamours’ which Sergison had found to be louder against him than any of his colleagues stemmed from his campaign to eradicate ‘irregularities and ill husbandry’ practised by the serving naval officers. Resentment erupted in June 1695 when Sir John Trevor*, the master of the rolls, complained that not only were the navy commissioners engaged in corrupt practices themselves, but they also protected dockyard officials engaged in such abuses. Possibly to secure himself against such attacks, Sergison tried to win a parliamentary seat, fighting an unsuccessful by-election at Portsmouth on 1 Feb. 1696. Later that year he and Lyddell were pressed into further service for the navy by accompanying Admiral Rooke (Sir George*) on an electioneering trip to Queenborough, but both men had to wait until the next general election in 1698 for their seats. Sergison was chosen at New Shoreham, a borough vulnerable to naval influence, where he defeated Henry Priestman*, a Whig lord of the Admiralty and a particular friend of Lord Orford (as Admiral Russell had become). He was classed as a Court placeman in about September 1698, but nevertheless quickly revealed his true sympathies, even though chronic illness in 1699 must have limited his attendance at Westminster during the second session of Parliament. He is said to have provided Robert Harley*, whose commitment to governmental efficiency he shared, with information for an attack on the Admiralty. This culminated in a vote on 18 Jan. 1699 condemning the delay in sending Admiral Matthew Aylmer’s* squadron to the Straits the previous summer, and it was noted that Sergison ‘said nothing, and went away before the question’. On the same day he also absented himself from the division on the third reading of the disbanding bill. Sergison probably presented a petition from the seamen about non-payment of wages on 30 Jan. 1700. Political differences with the ruling Whig Junto, together with the enmity aroused within the navy by his reforming zeal, account for his and Lyddell’s complaint, made in a private interview with the King on 24 May 1699, that

the officers of the fleet reproached us everywhere and were well received and heard when they ought to have been corrected for it. The treasurer of the navy’s officers and clerks omitted no opportunity of doing the same, mistakes (as they call them) being daily detected in their accounts sometimes to the value of ten and twenty thousand pounds at a time, which with our constant opposition to extra charges and partiality, begat ill usage from our superiors, and sometimes ill language.
We have had a sort of si quis after us for some months past, promises of rewards and preferments to anybody that could accuse us, our clerks privately examined concerning us, persons turned out for abuses in the service, others thought to be disobliged by us examined, some privately and some publicly . . . Here his Majesty said, ‘What did they do this publicly?’ and seemed startled at it, to which I answered, ‘Yes, Sir.’

Having claimed that he and his fellow reformer had been accused of disaffection, he outlined plans for reform, including retrenchment on spending, laying down rules for the appointment of officers to avoid partiality and favouritism, the re-establishment of discipline in the fleet, particularly by ensuring that commanders and captains obeyed their instructions on the distribution of prize money, insisting on regular attendance at the Navy Board by its treasurer (a hit at Lord Orford), and ensuring that all appointments to the various naval boards were made by the crown rather than the Admiralty. He finished the interview by asking leave to resign, to which the King replied, ‘I cannot part with you . . . I have more need of you now than ever . . . I will protect you.’6

William’s pledge of support for Sergison did not, however, end disputes in the strife-ridden naval administration. A few weeks after the meeting, he and Lyddell dined with Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt.*, the new treasurer of the navy, and told him that ‘he may depend upon their having a regard for him, and that upon trial either he will be satisfied with their method, or they will join him in getting them altered’; but four months later Littleton found himself opposing his officials over accounting methods. Worse still, in 1700 Gilbert Wardlaw, who had been dismissed from his post as a clerk in the office of the comptroller’s accounts, approached the Whig Lord Haversham (Sir John Thompson, 1st Bt.*) of the Admiralty, offering to expose wholesale peculation and mismanagement by the Navy Board. In the event, the attempt to discredit its members failed. According to Sergison, Haversham

with the help of an informer made as strict an inquiry as possible he could in those matters, and would have been glad enough to have found anything to hurt those working commissioners, nor could he, I say, with all his art and industry as well as malice, find anything new, except their regaling themselves at the board with tea and coffee, and a little increase in the newspapers.

Sergison was even able to turn accusations about over-expenditure on coal and wax to his own advantage, pointing out that the charge was ‘admirable evidence of the laborious works depending on this office, which could not be carried out without working so long time by candle light’. The Admiralty was forced to dismiss the charges as ‘maliciously inspired’, but relations between the two boards reached an all-time low, and Haversham refused to attend any joint sessions, until ordered to do so by the King himself.7

After the proclamation for a new Parliament had been issued in December 1700 Sergison wrote to his constituents offering himself as a candidate:

I hope I have carried myself to your satisfaction hitherto, for as I have endeavoured to serve his Majesty and the kingdom honestly and faithfully, so I cannot accuse myself of having been wanting to the borough in anything in my power. But you are the best judges of that, and I entirely refer myself to you, as I ought to do.

This declaration of submission to the will of the electorate, together with Sergison’s inability to accompany his ‘friend’ John Perry* to the poll because of illness, may have been interpreted as indifference, since doubts were voiced about his intention to seek re-election. He was nevertheless chosen again for New Shoreham in February 1701, and was listed among the likely supporters of the Court on agreeing with a resolution of the committee of supply to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. In the summer he once again asked for permission to retire from his office on health grounds. Josiah Burchett*, secretary to the Admiralty, wrote to him on 6 June 1701 that the King had rejected the request because ‘he was very unwilling to lose so good an officer as yourself, and therefore, did particularly recommend it to my lords to prevail with you to continue in his service’. Sergison replied that,

though I have served his Majesty with the utmost zeal, diligence, industry and integrity I have been capable of, yet having done it under a sense of duty, free from either interest or ambition, I was far from expecting any such acknowledgment.

The following day he apologized to Harley that he would not be well enough to attend Parliament, adding that he had asked a fellow Sussex Member, Thomas Pelham I*, to make his excuses in the House. In August he was writing again to request retirement, though this time the King was away and the matter left undetermined. He again represented New Shoreham in the second Parliament of 1701, when he was classed as a Tory by Harley, and voted on 26 Feb. 1702 for the impeachment of William’s Whig ministers.8

On the accession of Queen Anne it was rumoured that Sergison would be appointed to the council set up by the new lord high admiral, Prince George, but he continued at the Navy Board. He did not stand for Parliament in 1702, and did not put up again, perhaps because of continuing ill-health. In February and March 1703 he again requested leave to retire, moaning that the Queen’s refusal obliged his return to ‘drudgery’ and that his own ‘worn out condition’ matched the ‘ill state of the navy’. In July 1704 he tried to resign once more, but was told by George Churchill* that although the Prince had granted Sergison leave to go into the country for as long as his health required it, he had ‘so good an opinion’ of his conscientiousness that he could not be allowed to retire on a permanent basis. An example of such service was his studiously unhelpful response to parliamentary questions posed by the Lords that year. He had no doubt intended to deter the Whig attack on the administration, but, in a letter to Harley apparently from this period, wondered ‘whether I behaved myself as I ought, for that House mightily awes me as yet’. In 1708 Sergison suggested to Harley that although he was

little acquainted with the military part of the navy, in the civil I may pretend to a little knowledge, and could show many things fit to be redressed, if saving money be of any use or esteem among us, and when the eyes of the nation begin to open, shall be very ready to do my endeavours if I shall live to see that day.

A year later he wrote again to Harley, offering advice and observations about naval legislation currently under consideration in the House, and once more to tender his own resignation:

I am disabled with the care and fatigue of the public business, both in mind and body, my spirit sunk and distempers flowing in upon me, which I must use means to stop, and speedily too, or give myself up to misery for the rest of my life.

The following month he renewed his efforts to quit his post, but at a dinner with the lord high admiral Lord Pembroke, was told that his services were indispensable. In May Sergison was given temporary dispensation to go into the country, but the following month he again attempted to relinquish his office, arguing that he was unsuited to the sedentary lifestyle it demanded, that he was doing the work of two men, and grumbling that he had never been reimbursed for a year’s tax payments, even though he had saved the crown upwards of £10,000. In May 1711 he again bombarded Harley with proposals for naval reform and retrenchment, though this time he had the excuse that at least the minister had requested them. In a long exposition of the navy’s over-spending and mismanagement, Sergison repeated many of the arguments he had voiced since entering his office. In particular, he attacked the system of preferment both at sea and in the administration of the navy, the corruption of the treasurer’s office (which he described as ‘no more than a goldsmith’s shop’), the 1708 Act for better securing trade, and the 1706 Act for the encouragement of seamen. His criticism of the latter is especially revealing since it shows him disguising loyalty to his own department under the colour of public interest. Until 1694, when an Admiralty order banned the practice, sailors had employed navy office clerks to cash their pay tickets, in return for which the clerks had received a valuable perquisite. Sergison had frequently defended the means by which he had accumulated his own wealth, and now seized on the failure of the legislation to show that it did not protect the seamen from the sharks who operated on the open market. In the 1711 paper he even suggested better pay for his clerks, who were ‘the remains of the late reigns and obstinate to the methods of former times for saving of charges, which has made them many enemies, but no friends’. Indeed, throughout his proposals, Sergison constantly harked back to the days of Charles II and James II, ‘when saving of money was as much studied as the expense of it has been since . . . However the reign of Charles II may have been exploded for other things, it cannot be so in relation to the navy.’ He also quoted James II’s aphorism that ‘many littles make a mickle’, and suggested that if the navy had been managed as it had been after the Restoration ‘we might have annoyed the enemy much more by our fleet than we have done’. Such nostalgia for a golden age of Stuart naval efficiency may explain his anxiety to employ the decrepit Samuel Atkins, whose knowledge of the system under Pepys offered a memory of this glorious past; and it may also explain why those around him, including a London Whig club in 1715, suspected his loyalty to the post-Revolution governments. Sergison wanted to turn the clock back to a time when monarchs took an active interest in the navy and ensured that it ran along fixed rules of fairness and efficiency. He laboured long and hard to persuade contemporary governments to imitate the previous era, but in the final analysis he perceived ‘the great misfortune of this nation to proceed from the decay of the royal family’.9

Sergison remained in office after the accession of George I but, ironically, rather than be offered his long overdue retirement, he was unceremoniously dismissed in 1719. The manner in which he was turned out of office scandalized both his friends and enemies. Sir Charles Wager* wrote on 1 May 1719 that he had not had the ‘least suspicion’ of Sergison’s fate

and therefore no thought of endeavouring to prevent it; but when such things are done, the post of honour (as Cato says) is a private station. If he was my father or brother, I could not be more sorry, for though I know he does not value the office, I am sure he must take it very ill to be put out in this manner, after long years of faithful service.

Even his old adversary, Orford, ‘expressed the greatest concern for the irretrievable loss the Royal Navy had sustained’. Sergison’s abrupt dismissal was quite possibly connected with his outspoken opposition to certain new practices, particularly that of paying ships in harbour at full rate instead of paying men off, a system that benefited his old enemies, the naval officials. An alternative explanation is that ‘the civil government being put into military hands, he was esteemed by them not a fit person to serve any longer’. Sergison died on 26 Nov. 1732, and was buried at Cuckfield Church where a monumental inscription declared that

in those who served under him, merit alone recommended, fidelity and diligence were rewarded, which gained him respect, esteem and honour. He served his country in several Parliaments, where like a true patriot he . . . consulted only the real interest of the nation, without any particular views of his own. In private life he observed justice and probity, affable in his relations, peaceable to his neighbours, kind and beneficent to his servants, and in every station an honest man.

Although this picture of devotion was accurate, serious doubts must be entertained about Sergison’s occasional laments that public service had also damaged his fortunes. By his will he distributed over £20,000 of legacies to relations, and left £1,000 to a servant. An Anglican piety, suggested by his subscription to Walker’s Sufferings of the Clergy in 1714, is also confirmed by his bequests of £100 to the poor of St Olave’s in London, and £100 to Christ’s Hospital. The main part of his estate passed to his great-nephew Thomas Warden, who had married one of his nieces, and who assumed the name of Sergison. His will also stipulated that building at Cuckfield should be started to accommodate his models and books, ‘and especially I will and appoint that my naval collections shall be taken care of all together as they now are’. These documents now form one of the major collections at the National Maritime Museum.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. Suss. Arch. Colls. xxv. 78; xlix. 102–3; IGI, Westmld., London.
  • 2. Sergison Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxxxix), 1–10; G. F. Duckett, Commrs. of Navy, 10–11, 119–21.
  • 3. Essex RO (Chelmsford), Harwich bor. recs. 98/5, f. 72.
  • 4. DNB; Add. 70311, Sergison to Admiralty, 28 July 1709; 70317–18, newsletter 15 Dec. 1712; 70292, Lyddell to Oxford, 6 June 1713; Pepys Corresp. ii. 316; Sergison Pprs. 1–10; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 2180; Suss. Arch. Colls. xlix. 102–3; NMM, Sergison mss Ser/107.
  • 5. Sergison Pprs. 48–51; NMM, Sergison mss Ser/101, ff. 511–17, draft letter, 1692.
  • 6. HMC Downshire, i. 473–6; Add. 70224, Edmund Dummer* to Harley, 2 Feb. 1696; BL, Althorp mss, box 3, R. Crawford to Mq. of Halifax (William Savile*), 1 Oct. 1696; Pepys Corresp. i. 234, 255; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 257; Sergison Pprs. 197–8; Suss. Arch. Colls. xxv. 62–70.
  • 7. Add. 40774, ff. 50, 209; Sergison Pprs. 14, 56–57; Harl. 6287, ff. 95–119; Mariner’s Mirror, xxxviii. 123.
  • 8. Hereford and Worcester RO (Hereford), C64/117, Sergison to constable and inhabitants of New Shoreham, 14, 26 Dec. 1700; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James Lowther* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 9 Jan. 1701; Suss. Arch. Colls. 70–71; Add. 70037, Sergison to Harley, 7 June 1701.
  • 9. Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 175; Suss. Arch. Colls. xxv. 71–78; Sergison Pprs. 9, 51–53, 169–70, 188–90; HMC Portland, viii. 310–11; x. 53; J. A. Johnston, ‘Parliament and the Navy, 1688–1714’ (Sheffield Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1968), 132; Harl. 6287, ff. 95–119; London Rec. Soc. vii. 22.
  • 10. Add. 70141, Sergison to Edward Harley, 29 Feb. 1719; Suss. Arch. Colls. xxv. 77–79, pedigree; xlix. 102–4; Q. Anne’s Navy (Navy Recs. Soc. ciii), 10; PCC 296 Bedford.